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Helena leaders considering changes to Rodney Street project to address neighbors' concerns

Posted at 10:38 PM, May 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-14 00:38:36-04

HELENA — Helena city leaders said Wednesday that they’re willing to make some changes to a major street project in order to address neighbors’ concerns.

The Helena City Commission discussed the Rodney Street Project during an administrative meeting.

The first phase of the project will include a full rebuild of Rodney Street between Broadway and Ninth Avenue. In some places, engineers planned to reduce the width of the current sidewalks, but add a “boulevard” strip of landscaping between the sidewalk and the curb, and create curb extensions or “bulb-outs” to reduce the distance for pedestrians to cross the street at some intersections.

The stretch of Rodney between Broadway and Sixth Avenue includes a number of businesses. Many of the owners opposed the plans for boulevards and bulb-outs, arguing they would make the street too narrow and restrict traffic flow and parking.

Charlie Carson, the owner of the B&B Market and several other properties, said the bulb-outs would make it difficult for large delivery trucks to maneuver – especially in winter, when ice and snow can build up.

On Wednesday, city staff presented the latest design proposal for the project. It included some updates, like reducing the narrowing of traffic lanes and shrinking the bulb-outs. City engineer Ryan Leland said those changes were deviations from the city’s usual standards for street design, so he asked the commission to give staff direction whether or not to move forward with them.

While neighbors said the changes were an improvement, they still expressed concerns about curb extensions. Three commissioners – Andres Haladay, Sean Logan and Heather O’Loughlin – said Wednesday that they were willing to eliminate the bulb-outs entirely.

“We certainly have these design standards for a very good reason, and I’m sensitive to that,” O’Loughlin said. “I think there are circumstances where we have existing streets that were designed a long time ago, and really thinking through what the impact is going to be.”

Mayor Wilmot Collins and Commissioner Emily Dean said they wanted to visit Rodney Street in the coming days to get a better idea of what the options for the street are.

The Rodney Street Project was initially expected to begin this spring. Leland said the length of the design process and challenges in gathering public comment during the COVID-19 emergency have delayed that. In addition, the project cannot go out for bid until the new fiscal year begins in July, because of an issue in securing loan funding.

Leland said, once the plan for the project is finalized, city leaders will have to decide whether they want to begin work on Rodney Street later this year or wait until next year, so that they won’t have to stop work in the middle for winter.

Also during Wednesday’s administrative meeting, city leaders announced that a Lewis and Clark County judge has allowed construction work to go on at the Beattie Street Trailhead.

District Court Judge Kathy Seeley denied two nearby residents’ request for a preliminary injunction while their lawsuit over the project goes forward. Nicholas Sovner and Cheri Thornton argue the work goes against a land exchange agreement they made with the city.

The Beattie Street project would create 18 paved parking spots and add additional facilities at the trailhead. City Attorney Thomas Jodoin said Wednesday that contractors are expected to resume work next week.